Who entered the workhouse and why?
By Lucy Ingamells
The Victorian Poor Laws (renewed in 1834) brought about all sorts of poor relief nationwide. This also meant that workhouses were introduced to many places and there were thirteen unions introduced to Hertfordshire. This meant that the poor of Hertfordshire could enter a workhouse to be given food and accomodtaion for themselves and their family, in return for work. However, they did not work as effectively as had been hoped and often the ‘inmates’ went hungry anyway, and lived in terrible conditions. These work houses, and other similar institutions that they later became, had been completely abolished by 1948.
In the early 19th Century, records show a number of reasons for people to enter the Aldenham workhouse. Common reasons for entry were if one had reached too old of an age to be employed elsewhere, families often had to enter as they were too large to sustain themselves, or women who had been widowed. The most common reasons however, appeared to be more to do with the absence of one parent (usually a father), so the child either; didn’t not know who their father was, had lost at least one parent to death or the child’s parent was in ‘gaol’. One 25 year old was even entered the work house because they were a ‘lunatic’.
The age of those entering the workhouse greatly varied, records showing those from just 2 months old up to 88 years. Young children were often forced to work as well as the adults.
Most people were long term residents staying for the full recorded year and most likely even longer, however some seemed to stay for only a matter of weeks. Many left the workhouse for a period of a few months only to return again. Often children and widows would leave for a few months in the summer, possibly for harvest work as many children were employed for work in the fields in the summer. There are recorded deaths of those who died in the workhouse; it is unknown as to whether the deaths are related to the workhouse or whether it was due to something else like disease.